The chronicle of a condemned man

A Norwegian penpal’s book about the Texas prisoner she came to know over 10 years

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Marit Lund Bødtker

Suspense: Twelve Years Living and Longing on Death Row, by Marit Lund Bødtker, translated from the Norwegian by J. Basil Cowlishaw, was published in 2017.

An early 1993 Amnesty International Norwegian branch member news bulletin included an appeal that triggered her curiosity. It asked if there were members in Norway willing to write to prisoners in what was described as Death’s Waiting Room, the death row of the State Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. She assumed that members in other countries most likely had received similar appeals and would respond. Nonetheless, Norwegian writer Marit Lund Bødtker called the Amnesty International Oslo office to say yes, she was willing to write a prisoner on death row.

A written reply came in mid-August. The office had contacted a prisoner and enclosed a short, handwritten letter from Ivan Ray Murphy, Jr., Prisoner No. 989. From that letter she learned that he then was 28 years old, had been on the death row in Huntsville for two and a half years, and before then had been imprisoned for almost five years elsewhere. His mother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, and his father was an unspecified mix of Native American and Irish. He was fond of reading and writing poetry, writing letters, drawing, and chess. Before being imprisoned, he had been an avid fisherman. She replied on a picture postcard of a fishing boat near the Lofoten Islands.

That card initiated a correspondence of more than 10 years, until Prisoner Murphy was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 4, 2003. In those 10 years, Lund Bødtker received 120 letters from Murphy, nick-named Pee-Wee due to his small size when born. She wrote as many letters to him and traveled twice to Texas to meet him face to face, and once to meet his family in Hugo, Okla. She found Pee-Wee to be humble, kind, and truthful. She marveled at the expressiveness of his writing and admired the poems and drawings he sent. Why, she wondered, was so sensitive a person on death row?

Ivan Ray Murphy

Photo courtesy of Springs Chapel Cemetery
Ivan Ray “Pee-Wee” Murphy, Jr.’s gravestone, fittingly, depicts two fish.

So she also researched the circumstances of his case. At the outset, she learned that he had been sentenced to death for the murder of an old woman in January 1989. In studying his case while corresponding with Pee-Wee, she came to believe there was a good chance of his being innocent. Authoritative opinion holds that he most likely was. The Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty summarized his case before his execution: “The only implicating evidence that the state is using to execute Mr. Murphy was the fabricated and perjured testimony of a jailhouse ‘informant’ who has since recanted. Mr. Murphy, like the disturbing majority of poor defendants in capital cases, was not adequately represented by his lawyer. On appeal, he attempted to present new evidence and address unresolved factual issues. After cursory review, the court refused to hear his arguments… If Mr. Murphy was capable of paying for his defense, he probably would never have received the death sentence.”

Understandably, Pee-Wee never confessed, but worked tirelessly to regain his freedom. He became religious toward the end of his life, and his final words include his belief that “Through Jesus Christ, we have victory over death.” Pee-Wee’s siblings, who lived in Hugo, retrieved his body, dressed it in the simple blue clothes he often wore when fishing, and buried him near the graves of his parents in the nearby Springs Chapel Cemetery. Fittingly, his gravestone depicts two fish, and the last line of its inscription reads “Gone Fishing.”

Author Lund Bødtker kept and, with time, organized and filed nearly 1,000 pages of her correspondence with Pee-Wee: notes and media clippings in three two-inch binders that she used to realize his hope that a book might be written about him. The book was first published in Norwegian in 2014, under the title Dødsdømt nr. 989 (Death sentenced no. 989). In 2017, in English translation, the book reviewed here was released. It’s worthy critique on the death sentence, not least in light of Pilate’s ultimate question, “What is Truth?”*

Suspense: Twelve Years Living and Longing on Death Row, by Marit Lund Bødtker, translated from the Norwegian by J. Basil Cowlishaw, was published in 2017.

*New Testament, John 18:38 (King James Bible: “Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?”)

This article originally appeared in the March 23, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.